Post C40 Summit Cities Need to "Go Big or Go Home" on Climate Policy

[I've got a new piece running over at The Mark News. The latest Clinton C40 urban climate summit just wrapped up in Brazil, and as always there's been a flood of optimistic news coverage. I'm all for optimism.  But I wanted to provide some perspective on what it will really take for cities to have an impact on climate change.]

If you haven’t already, you'll probably see some version of the headline “Cities To Save Global Climate” at least once over the course of this week. From May 31 to June 2, representatives of some of the world's greenest metropolises were in Sao Paulo for a C40 climate-change summit hosted by the Clinton Foundation. As a result, newspapers will again be full of optimism about the environmental potential of the world's cities – and for good reason.

Over 50 per cent of us live in cities, and cities generate 70 per cent of our greenhouse-gas emissions. So far, though, few municipalities have put in place actions that are on par with that kind of impact.

Look beyond the boosterist headlines and you will find descriptions of energy-efficient streetlights, retrofitted local arenas, and showcase modifications to landmarks like New York's Empire State Building. Let's stop here for a moment. If it seems unlikely to you that energy-efficient crosswalk signals are going to do anything to curb climate change, that's because it is. [Read More @ The Mark]

When cities talk about the impacts of what they could do, they use a broad definition of “the city” that begins with city hall and runs all the way out to the upstream emissions that come from producing the energy, goods, and services that we all consume. It's only when you look at cities on that scale that they account for 70 per cent of the emissions we are pumping out. If you are serious about what cities can do, then those are the numbers you need to deal with.

But when people talk about what cities are doing, they almost always fall back on a much narrower vision – a vision that's restricted largely to the emissions produced within city limits. The scale of the rhetoric is totally out of sync with the scale of the actions. But it doesn't have to be.

Over the past five years, I’ve worked around the world looking at what is different about cities that are leading the way on climate policy. My goal was to determine what set those cities apart. You can sum up the answer in one word: “scale.”

Build one landmark LEED Platinum condo downtown and you've got window dressing. But use that condo as a test case for modernizing outdated zoning and building codes, and you open the door to scaling up from one green building to a truly green city.

That’s what Vancouver accomplished with its Olympic Village: Rather than simply creating exceptions to the rules, it created exceptions that changed them. Old regulations that unintentionally blocked rooftop solar or passive thermal design went out, and new rules that required large developments to produce district energy plans came in. That kind of thinking allows cities to go to scale with climate policies.

Travel down the Pacific coast to Portland, Ore., and you will see a similar approach at work. In most cities, about one-third of emissions come from commercial and residential buildings. But responsibility for those emissions is divided among thousands of people. It is the classic collective-action problem. To make an impact that goes beyond a few well-meaning homeowners doing energy audits, you need to find ways to make energy retrofits not just smart, but also irresistible.

That's the logic behind Portland's Clean Energy Works program (CEWP), which combines long-term low-interest financing and bulk contracting to roll out retrofits on a massive scale. Beyond reducing emissions, operating at this level has other benefits: The CEWP will create an estimated 10,000 stable jobs over 10 years. The program has now been scaled up to the state level, and is aiming to create 30,000 such jobs in Oregon. So far, there is no similar program here in Canada.

The initiatives undertaken in Vancouver and Portland are examples of what cities are capable of: taking concrete, manageable projects and scaling them up to a truly significant level. To push cities further in that direction, researchers at the World Bank are developing new guidelines for counting urban emissions. One of their goals is to ensure that cities include the emissions generated in the production of the energy, food, and gadgets that urbanites consume. By doing this, cities are able to discover areas for policy development that were previously overlooked (leading to things like Denver's recent green concrete policy). The comparison of these inclusive inventories would also show the huge inequalities that exist between cities. Take consumption into account and you will see that wealthy cities have emissions thousands of times larger than cities in low-income countries.

This week, as green cities again grab the spotlight, keep an eye on how well actions match up with words. If we've learned anything from Kyoto, it's the danger of leaders promising what they aren't actually going to deliver. Cities have an opportunity to sidestep that failure and make a significant dent on the world's emissions. But one-off “eco chic” projects and marginal efficiency gains are not going to get us there.

Many projects can be used as catalysts for significant shifts within our cities. But unless they are really taken to scale, we are all going to be let down in the end. This is a strictly “go big or go home” event.


2 Responses to "Post C40 Summit Cities Need to "Go Big or Go Home" on Climate Policy"

Anonymous said... 15 June 2012 at 08:05

This article should be front & centre on every Canadian newspaper [french & english] while the Harper government stunts debate by forcing MP's through the all or nothing 60 unrelated statutes "package vote" Bill C-38:

axing commitment to Kyoto; making it easier for industrial offshore drilling, exploiting oil & gas in the Gulf of St. Lawrence; shortening public hearings of major energy projects including pipelines; empowering cabinet to approve projects regardless of what hearings conclude; reduce "protection of non-commercial fish stock habitat; end federal funding for National Roundtable on the Economy and the Environment; & cut 600 of 3,000 Parks Canada jobs; cut 10% *Radio-Canada/CBC budget, $6.7 million from *National Film Board, and 10.6 million from *Telefilm Canada [*Our Voice]

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

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